It's known as the Daisy Ad. In 1964 as President Lyndon Johnson was facing off against Republican Barry Goldwater, he wanted to send out a message that would activate more people to vote for him.
In it, a young girl pulls the petals off a daisy, counting as she goes, occasionally stumbling in the order. Birds chirp in the background. When she's done counting up to nine, another voice steps in with the number "ten," counting down to "one" as the camera zeroes in on one of the child's eyes in which we see a nuclear explosion occurring. The image's message is unmistakable. We're nuking babies here. A voice over from Johnson speaks to the viewers about what's at stake in this election. The ad never mentions Goldwater's name.
The reaction was immense, both pro and con to what viewers had just seen, And it's that reaction as well as what had gone before in the making of that TV spot that Canadian playwright Sean Devine used as a basis for Daisy, the two-act play with six characters about to open at Main Street Theater.
Devine has always been interested in politics — he's even run unsuccessfully for a congressional seat in Canada — and he extends that interest to the American political system. Back in 2003 he was researching political consultants in general when he came across a book that discussed the Daisy ad and its creators.
"I became quite, quite curious about that Daisy ad and the impact that negative advertising had on campaigns and elections in general," he says. "The ad never mentioned Goldwater and yet what the Daisy ad did was it triggered people in a way that made them think about Goldwater.
"A lot of political advertising we see now, it will put a message out that is designed to tap into somebody's prejudices or unconscious fears and it might not name that fear but it will tap into it and provoke a desired response," Devine says. "If the Daisy ad was a lovely example of nuance and artful presentation, a lot more advertising these days is perhaps less nuanced and certainly less artful. They're probably just pounding people over the head."
The reaction once the ad aired sparked a lot of outrage and calls for it to be taken off the air.
"At least one of the people who created that ad would say there was nothing wrong at all with it. It was a message for peace," Devine says. "Another person who was more pragmatic about it, I remember him saying that it was a crusade. That the gloves were off and no holds were barred and they would have done anything because the ends justified the means. Because at that time they believed that Goldwater was such an existential threat that they had every reason to put up messages that would shock and terrorize people into voting against him."
The ad appeared only one time as paid advertising. "But it showed thousands of times. Every news company picked it up and put it on the nightly news. So it played many, many, many times," Devine says.
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"I think although the play is set in the '60s it’s absolutely a commentary on how even contemporary elections and voting are manipulated," Devine says. "People need to be engaged in democracy. Although the play is certainly entertaining it really does hammer home how easily electronic media can influence people."
And it's that message that Devine wants audience members to carry home with them — the knowledge of how and why publicists and campaign managers will be trying to influence opinion.
"People who want to win elections will always do whatever they can to win that election," he says. "And when you give a campaign manager or a campaign the option of being able to influence a voter right up until the point of crossing the line and breaking the law and even going over that line, if they can do it and get away with it they most likely will."
Performances are scheduled for March 31 through April 29 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Fridays and 3 p.m. Sundays with no performances April 1 or April 28 at Main Street Theater- Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard. For information call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36-$45.